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Archive for February 2011

Tainted IV fluid ‘kills 13 pregnant women’ in India

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Health authorities in India’s Rajasthan state are investigating allegations that 13 pregnant women died after they were given infected intravenous (IV) fluids at a government hospital.


Tens of thousands of women die in India annually during pregnancy

All the deaths were reported in Jodhpur city over the past 10 days.

Laboratory tests had confirmed that IV fluids supplied by a local company were “tainted”, officials said.

A police case has been registered and an investigation has begun, they said.

“The women died after severe haemorrhaging and we believe the most likely cause might be an infection after they were administered tainted IV fluids,” Umaid Hospital administrator Narendra told the BBC.

“During lab tests, we found three batches of glucose which were tainted. We have lodged a complaint with the police and strict action will be taken against the manufacturers,” he said.

India accounts for the highest number of maternal deaths in the world with tens of thousands of women dying every year due to pregnancy-related problems.

Campaigners say most of the deaths are needless and could easily be prevented if more care and attention was paid to their treatment.

Palestinian house inside cage in Jewish settlement

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BEIT IJZA: The al-Ghirayib family lives in one of the stranger manifestations of Israel’s 43-year occupation of the West Bank: a Palestinian house inside a metal cage inside an Israeli settlement.

The family’s 10 members, four of them children, can only reach the house via a 40-yard (meter) passageway connecting them to the Arab village of Beit Ijza farther down a hill.

The passageway passes over a road used by Israeli army jeeps and is lined on both sides with a 24-foot-high (8-meter) heavy-duty metal fence.

The same fence rings the simple one-story house, separating it from the surrounding settlement houses. Some of those dwellings are so close that the family can hear the insults shouted by a nearby Jewish neighbor.

While al-Ghirayibs’ situation is unusual, Palestinians say it reflects the pressures put on their communities by Israel’s more than 120 West Bank settlements.

The Palestinian Authority has refused to hold peace talks with Israel while settlement construction continues. The latest round of talks collapsed over the settlement issue in September, only three weeks after starting.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

This week, the Palestinians directed their anger toward the United States after it vetoed a resolution before the UN Security Council condemning the settlements as “illegal.”

The US said it opposes settlements, but that peace talks are the only way to resolve such issues. The council’s 14 other members voted for the measure.

“The Americans have chosen to be alone in disrupting the internationally backed Palestinian efforts,” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said.

Ahead of the vote, Fayyad visited the home with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who commented: “This is an inhuman life they have.”

Sadat al-Ghirayib, 30, said his father built the house in 1978 on about 27 acres of family land, where he planted fruit trees. The Israel army soon confiscated part of the land, he said.

The settlement of Givon HaHadasha was founded in the early 1980s. Al-Ghirayib said the army confiscated more land as the settlement spread. Today, it is home to some 1,100 Jewish settlers, some of their homes no more than two dozen steps from the al-Ghirayib home. Just a handful of trees remain.
In 2005, the army built a section of its West Bank separation barrier near the settlement. Israel says the barrier keeps out attackers. Palestinians say it steals land by cutting deep into the West Bank in some places.

The home was the only one in the village of about 700 people on the settlement side of the barrier.

Al-Ghirayib, who works in a local metal shop, said he and his family tried to stop the construction crews and the army detained them. When they were released, the cage was in place, he said. Security cameras at the heavy metal gate at the end of the passageway monitor all who come and go.

He said army officers have recently threatened to shut the gate, saying village children come in to throw stones at the settlement.

“They have cameras. If they see kids throwing stones, they can come shoot them,” said his 74-year-old father, Sabri. “Am I supposed to guard the gate?”

The Israeli army did not comment on whether the land was confiscated, how the fence was built or if there are plans to close the gate.

In a statement, it said the Israeli Supreme Court was examining the issue of the family’s land and that the army had “invested” tens of thousands of dollars to make sure the family can leave the home without coordinating with the army.

The neighbors are very close. On a recent afternoon, Gary Bar Dov, 15, who lives in a third-floor apartment overlooking the house, walked by while children on the inside gripped the fence and watched.

“It’s very strange to live this way,” he said. “It’s strange, but you get used to it.”

Where did it all go wrong? India wonders…

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By Amit Baruah

Not very long ago, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could do no wrong – or so it seemed.


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reshuffled his cabinet on Wednesday, hoping it would restore confidence in his beleaguered government

Long considered a man of unimpeachable integrity, Mr Singh coasted to a second term as the prime minister of the world’s second most populous nation in May last year.

From 145 seats in the lower house of parliament, Lok Sabha, in 2004, his Congress party increased its share of seats to 206 in the May 2009 polls.

By current Indian electoral standards, it was an impressive performance.

With the opposition in disarray, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government appeared to be on a roll.

An unshakeable understanding between Mr Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi ensured political stability in the country. Frequent meetings between the two suggested a neat division of responsibility between party and government.

‘Mind-boggling’

In the past few months, the personal equation may have continued, but things have begun going horribly wrong for the Congress-led coalition.


Regular protests by Telangana activists are just one of the government’s worries at the moment

Inflation, corruption scandals, a massive and ongoing agitation for a separate state of Telangana in southern India, apparent favours in the allocation of land, the abuse of discretionary powers by state leaders: everything seemed to go wrong at the same time for Mr Singh and his government.

A spate of court cases has given the government a headache.

The Supreme Court made some sharp observations of official decisions in what has come to be known as the 2G scandal – where the government is said to have incurred losses of billions of dollars in the sale of mobile phone spectrum.

And on Wednesday, hearing a case of unaccounted money being held by Indians in foreign banks, the court criticised the coalition for its reluctance to provide more information.

“It is a pure and simple theft of national money,” said Justices B Sudershan Reddy and S S Nijjar. “We are talking about mind-boggling crime. We are not on the niceties of treaties.”

Such comments have become a near-daily affair for the government in one case or the other.

And so far it has not been able to come up with convincing answers.

Government ‘rudderless’

In what the Indian media has dismissed as a lame effort to energise his government, Mr Singh changed the portfolios of as many as 36 ministers on Wednesday, terming it a “minor reshuffle” and promising a more “expansive exercise” in the next few months.

But analysts believe that this may not help the image of the government as a performing entity.

Neena Vyas, associate editor of The Hindu newspaper, told the BBC: “More important is whether the government is able to break the logjam with the opposition, which prevented parliament from conducting any business in the recent session of parliament.”

Ms Vyas was referring to the impasse in parliament, in which all sections of an often-divided opposition came together to demand a parliamentary inquiry into the 2G scandal.

Several officials who chose to remain anonymous told this writer that a sense of paralysis had gripped the government.

“No-one wants to take decisions in such an environment where everything is suddenly under question. The government appears rudderless,” one of them said.

“It’s sad, but this is true,” confirmed a junior minister in Mr Singh’s government, who told me he believed the prime minister had been extremely hurt by the personal allegations levelled against him by some opposition leaders.

Challenges ahead

It is an open question whether the reshuffle carried out by Mr Singh will mean anything in real terms.

There also appear to be divergences on key issues like a new Food Security Bill between the government and the National Advisory Council, a powerful lobby group within the establishment headed by Mrs Gandhi.

Mrs Gandhi has said publicly there should be “no tolerance” for corruption or misconduct.

At a Congress party conference in December, she suggested fast-tracking corruption cases against public servants, providing full transparency in public procurements and contracts, and reviewing the discretionary powers of state chief ministers.

She also called for an open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources.

Analysts are comparing Mr Singh’s second tenure to the political crisis, linked to a corruption scandal, that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faced back in the mid-1980s, despite having a huge majority in parliament.

Eventually, Mr Gandhi lost the 1989 elections and a motley coalition of parties took power.

While there are similarities between then and now, Mr Singh and Mrs Gandhi still have the opportunity to retrieve lost ground.

A lot will depend on whether or not the government can check spiralling food inflation. Also, whether the Congress and its allies are able to blunt the opposition attack during next month’s budget session of parliament will be critical.

Mr Singh and his government still have a little over three years to go before the May 2014 elections.

But the prime minister, Mrs Gandhi and the government have a tough job ahead if they fancy a return to power in Delhi.

American Held in Pakistan Worked With C.I.A.

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WASHINGTON – The American arrested in Pakistan after shooting two men at a crowded traffic stop was part of a covert, C.I.A.-led team collecting intelligence and conducting surveillance on militant groups deep inside the country, according to American government officials.


Raymond A. Davis, center, was escorted to court by a Pakistani security official in Lahore on Jan. 28.

Working from a safe house in the eastern city of Lahore, the detained American contractor, Raymond A. Davis, a retired Special Forces soldier, carried out scouting and other reconnaissance missions as a security officer for the Central Intelligence Agency case officers and technical experts doing the operations, the officials said.

Mr. Davis’s arrest and detention last month, which came after what American officials have described as a botched robbery attempt, have inadvertently pulled back the curtain on a web of covert American operations inside Pakistan, part of a secret war run by the C.I.A.

The episode has exacerbated already frayed relations between the American intelligence agency and its Pakistani counterpart, created a political dilemma for the weak, pro-American Pakistani government, and further threatened the stability of the country, which has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal.

Without describing Mr. Davis’s mission or intelligence affiliation, President Obama last week made a public plea for his release. Meanwhile, there have been a flurry of private phone calls to Pakistan from Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all intended to persuade the Pakistanis to release the secret operative.

Mr. Davis has worked for years as a C.I.A. contractor, including time at Blackwater Worldwide, the private security firm (now called Xe) that Pakistanis have long viewed as symbolizing a culture of American gun-slinging overseas.

The New York Times had agreed to temporarily withhold information about Mr. Davis’s ties to the agency at the request of the Obama administration, which argued that disclosure of his specific job would put his life at risk. Several foreign news organizations have disclosed some aspects of Mr. Davis’s work with the C.I.A.

On Monday, American officials lifted their request to withhold publication. George Little, a C.I.A. spokesman, declined to comment specifically on the Davis matter, but said in a statement: “Our security personnel around the world act in a support role providing security for American officials. They do not conduct foreign intelligence collection or covert operations.”

Since the United States is not at war in Pakistan, the American military is largely restricted from operating in the country. So the Central Intelligence Agency has taken on an expanded role, operating armed drones that kill militants inside the country and running covert operations, sometimes without the knowledge of the Pakistanis.

Several American and Pakistani officials said that the C.I.A. team with which Mr. Davis worked in Lahore was tasked with tracking the movements of various Pakistani militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, a particularly violent group that Pakistan uses as a proxy force against India but that the United States considers a threat to allied troops in Afghanistan. For the Pakistanis, such spying inside their country is an extremely delicate issue, particularly since Lashkar has longstanding ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

Still, American and Pakistani officials use Lahore as a base of operations to investigate the militant groups and their madrasas in the surrounding area.

The officials gave various accounts of the makeup of the covert team and of Mr. Davis, who at the time of his arrest was carrying a Glock pistol, a long-range wireless set, a small telescope and a headlamp. An American and a Pakistani official said in interviews that operatives from the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command had been assigned to the group to help with the surveillance missions. Other American officials, however, said that no military personnel were involved with the team.

Special operations troops routinely work with the C.I.A. in Pakistan. Among other things, they helped the agency pinpoint the location of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy Taliban commander who was arrested in January 2010 in Karachi.

Even before the arrest of Mr. Davis, his C.I.A. affiliation was known to Pakistani authorities, who keep close tabs on the movements of Americans. His visa, presented to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in late 2009, describes his job as a “regional affairs officer,” a common job description for officials working with the agency.

According to that application, Mr. Davis carried an American diplomatic passport and was listed as “administrative and technical staff,” a category that typically grants diplomatic immunity to its holder.

American officials said that with Pakistan’s government trying to clamp down on the increasing flow of Central Intelligence Agency officers and contractors trying to gain entry to Pakistan, more of these operatives have been granted “cover” as embassy employees and given diplomatic passports.

As Mr. Davis is held in a jail cell in Lahore – the subject of an international dispute at the highest levels – new details are emerging of what happened in a dramatic daytime scene on the streets of central Lahore, a sprawling city, on Jan. 27.

By the American account, Mr. Davis was driving alone in an impoverished area rarely visited by foreigners, and stopped his car at a crowded intersection. Two Pakistani men brandishing weapons hopped off motorcycles and approached. Mr. Davis killed them with the Glock, an act American officials insisted was in self-defense against armed robbers.

But on Sunday, the text of the Lahore Police Department’s crime report was published in English by a prominent daily newspaper, The Daily Times, and it offered a somewhat different account.

It is based in part on the version of events Mr. Davis gave Pakistani authorities, and it seems to raise doubts about his claim that the shootings were in self-defense.

According to that report, Mr. Davis told the police that after shooting the two men, he stepped out of the car to take photographs of one of them, then called the United States Consulate in Lahore for help.

But the report also said that the victims were shot several times in the back, a detail that some Pakistani officials say proves the killings were murder. By this account, Mr. Davis fired at the men through his windshield, then stepped out of the car and continued firing. The report said that Mr. Davis then got back in his car and “managed to escape,” but that the police gave chase and “overpowered” him at a traffic circle a short distance away.

In a bizarre twist that has further infuriated the Pakistanis, a third man was killed when an unmarked Toyota Land Cruiser, racing to Mr. Davis’s rescue, drove the wrong way down a one-way street and ran over a motorcyclist. As the Land Cruiser drove “recklessly” back to the consulate, the report said, items fell out of the vehicle, including 100 bullets, a black mask and a piece of cloth with the American flag.

Pakistani officials have demanded that the Americans in the S.U.V. be turned over to local authorities, but American officials say they have already left the country.

Mr. Davis and the other Americans were heavily armed and carried sophisticated equipment, the report said.

The Pakistani Foreign Office, generally considered to work under the guidance of the ISI, has declined to grant Mr. Davis what it calls the “blanket immunity” from prosecution that diplomats enjoy. In a setback for Washington, the Lahore High Court last week gave the Pakistani government until March 14 to decide on Mr. Davis’s immunity.

The pro-American government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, fearful for its survival in the face of a surge of anti-American sentiment, has resisted strenuous pressure from the Obama administration to release Mr. Davis to the United States. Some militant and religious groups have demanded that Mr. Davis be tried in the Pakistani courts and hanged.

Relations between the two spy agencies were tense even before the episode on the streets of Lahore. In December, the C.I.A.’s top clandestine officer in Pakistan hurriedly left the country after his identity was revealed. Some inside the agency believe that ISI operatives were behind the disclosure – retribution for the head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, being named in a New York City lawsuit filed in connection with the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, in which members of his agency are believed to have played a role. ISI officials denied that was the case.

One senior Pakistani official close to the ISI said Pakistani spies were particularly infuriated over the Davis episode because it was such a public spectacle. Besides the three Pakistanis who were killed, the widow of one of the victims committed suicide by swallowing rat poison.

Moreover, the official said, the case was embarrassing for the ISI for its flagrancy, revealing how much freedom American spies have to roam around the country.

“We all know the spy-versus-spy games, we all know it works in the shadows,” the official said, “but you don’t get caught, and you don’t get caught committing murders.”

Mr. Davis, burly at 36, appears to have arrived in Pakistan in late 2009 or early 2010. American officials said he operated as part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Response Staff in various parts of the country, including Lahore and Peshawar.

Documents released by Pakistan’s Foreign Office showed that Mr. Davis was paid $200,000 a year, including travel expenses and insurance.

He is a native of rural southwest Virginia, described by those who know him as an unlikely figure to be at the center of international intrigue.

He grew up in Big Stone Gap, a small town named after the gap in the mountains where the Powell River emerges.

The youngest of three children, Mr. Davis enlisted in the military after graduating from Powell Valley High School in 1993.

“I guess about any man’s dream is to serve his country,” his sister Michelle Wade said.

Shrugging off the portrait of him as an international spy comfortable with a Glock, Ms. Wade said: “He would always walk away from a fight. That’s just who he is.”

His high school friends remember him as good-natured, athletic, respectful. He was also a protector, they said, the type who stood up for the underdog.

“Friends with everyone, just a salt of the earth person,” said Jennifer Boring, who graduated from high school with Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis served in the infantry in Europe – including a short tour as a peacekeeper in Macedonia – before joining the Third Special Forces Group in 1998, where he remained until he left the Army in 2003. The Army Special Forces – known as the Green Berets – are an elite group trained in weapons and foreign languages and cultures.

It is unclear when Mr. Davis began working for the C.I.A., but American officials said that in recent years he worked for the spy agency as a Blackwater contractor and later founded his own small company, Hyperion Protective Services.

Mr. Davis and his wife have moved frequently, living in Las Vegas, Arizona and Colorado.

One neighbor in Colorado, Gary Sollee, said that Mr. Davis described himself as “former military,” adding that “he’d have to leave the country for work pretty often, and when he’s gone, he’s gone for an extended period of time.”

Mr. Davis’s sister, Ms. Wade, said she was awaiting her brother’s safe return.

“The only thing I’m going to say is I love my brother,” she said. “I love my brother, God knows, I love him. I’m just praying for him.”

US ‘begins talks’ with the Taliban

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A report claims that the Obama administration has launched exploratory contacts with senior leaders of the Afghan insurgency

The Afghan conflict has not lacked peace initiatives in the past few years. There have been at least a dozen back-channel contacts with the Taliban brokered by a mix of governments, institutions or individuals. But until now, it has been a cottage industry, producing reports but no tangible gains.


The talks are said to be the legacy of the late US envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

Many of those involved in these encounters predicted that there would be no way of knowing whether the Taliban leadership was interested in making a deal until Washington decided to engage with it directly. That now appears to have happened.

A report by Steve Coll in the current edition of the New Yorker reports that:

The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.

There are few details. We do not learn which Taliban figures are taking part, though Mullah Omar is apparently not involved. Nor is it clear whether the contacts are being orchestrated on the US side by the state department or the White House. Coll gives credit for inspiring them to Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan who died in December.

According to European diplomats, Barack Obama has told his national security staff that 2011 should be the year in which the political track towards a resolution takes precedence over the military approach. The US-Taliban contacts, if confirmed, signal that Washington is no longer content to leave the pace of political progress to the Afghan government that has little incentive in a settlement that would almost certainly put it out of business.

The next step will be a meeting of the international contact group early next month in Jeddah, where the special envoys (including Holbrooke’s replacement, Marc Grossman) will be hosted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Such meetings are generally too large and unwieldy to yield concrete results, but the OIC’s role this time will be widely seen as a blessing from the Islamic world for the search for a negotiated solution, important in turn for drawing in major Taliban figures. Holbrooke is said to have seen the OIC’s agreement to play host as a major coup and had been excitedly briefing Hillary Clinton on the development when he was taken ill.

The other big hope is that now there is news of direct US-Taliban talks, other regional players, Pakistan and Iran in particular, will play a more engaged role in multilateral talks, for fear of being left behind by a ‘peace train’ that might finally be leaving the station.

India’s Orissa state ‘halts’ offensive against Maoists

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The government in the eastern Indian state of Orissa has halted an offensive against Maoist rebels after they abducted a senior official.


Mr Krishna was on his way to inspect a government project when he was seized

R Vineel Krishna, district collector of Malkangiri, and another official were kidnapped on Wednesday evening.

The Maoists have demanded the release of rebels held in prisons and an end to the offensive by security forces.

Indian forces are battling Maoists in several states. The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of the poor.

Orissa’s Home Secretary UN Behura said the government was “stopping all combing operations in the state” and was ready to talk to the rebels.

Reports said the state government had contacted leading social worker Swami Agnivesh to negotiate with the rebels to secure Mr Krishna’s release.

The Maoists’ 48-hour deadline to the government to release rebels held in prison expires on Friday evening.

Correspondents say the deadline is likely to be extended in view of the government’s efforts to talk to the rebels.

Malkangiri is among the districts worst affected by Maoist violence in India.

The hilly and forested terrain make it an ideal place for Maoists to run their camps there and launch operations against security forces.

Mr Krishna, 30, is a graduate from the premier Indian Institute of Technology and joined the civil service in 2005. He was appointed to head Malkangiri district 16 months ago.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoist insurgency as India’s biggest internal security challenge.

A government offensive against the rebels – widely referred to as Operation Green Hunt – began in October 2009.

It involves 50,000 troops and is taking place across five states – West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

Indian PM vows to punish corrupt officials

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NEW DELHI: India’s embattled prime minister defended his government Wednesday against a string of corruption scandals, saying that he took the allegations seriously and would punish anyone involved, no matter their position.


India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has been wracked by allegations that Cabinet ministers and ruling party officials orchestrated shady deals over the sale of cellular phone licenses, presided over faulty preparations for the Commonwealth Games and were involved in other alleged scams that cost the government billions of dollars.

The scandals have dominated politics in India for months. The entire winter session of parliament was paralysed by the opposition amid demands for the establishment of an independent investigative body, which Singh refused.

Singh told reporters during a news conference Wednesday that the guilty would be punished.

“I wish to assure you, and I wish to assure the country as a whole that our government is dead serious in bringing to book all the wrongdoers, regardless of the positions they may occupy,” he said.

He denied any personal connection to the scandals, and expressed concerns that the nation’s image was being badly tarnished.

“We are weakening the self confidence of the people of India. I don’t think that is in the interest of anybody that is in our country. We have a functioning government…we take our job very seriously. We are here to govern and govern effectively,” he said, mildly chiding reporters for focusing so heavily on the scams.

“India as a whole has to march forward,” he said.